Memory and Reflexivity

The difficulties and fascination associated with memory stem from the fact that hardly any other object is so dependent on the observer. Memory depends on the one who remembers, and his observer, in turn, must be able to remember (and forget). When one talks about memory, one is always talking about oneself at the same time, and it is therefore impossible to take a neutral standpoint. The preoccupation with memory is not the same as the preoccupation with the past. One does not remember what has been, but only provides a reconstruction of what one had observed - already selectively - in the past; only that, then, which one remembers against the background of all that one has forgotten. In other words, one who remembers does not have to do with the world, but only with oneself and the conditions of one's own being; and memory takes place in the present, not in the past. Memory can be seen as a Form of self-observation in the present, that is, as something impossible: as immediate self-reference, which, as is well known, can be established only in a roundabout way through external or allegedly external references - in this case, through dealing with time.

But how is this possible without sinking into mere arbitrariness? That past which could also have happened differently and which could also have been treated differently appears in memory as inevitable. Only because history has proceeded in a certain way, one has come to exactly this present or to this system. From exactly this present one questions oneself about the past and memory.

The system exists as a result of the selections one has made in the past, which had a contingent character at the moment they were realized; but once they become a thing of the past, the same selections become obligatory. The contingency of the present acquires in memory a kind of posterior necessity that does not concern the world, but only the system that remembers. It is therefore a very weak necessity: a "necessity of the non-necessary" that itself has something paradoxical about it. It is precisely this that allows memory to function and to overcome paradoxes.

This is precisely what a theory of memory must also clarify.

This already very complex fact alone is not enough to sufficiently highlight the social aspect of memory - our actual topic. The memory we are going to deal with will always be the memory of society only; a memory, therefore, that is well distinguished from the memory (or memories) of individuals and also from their combination in the form of a "collective memory" in Halbwachs' sense.

p14N6 It is not without reason that memory, with its particularly complex way of making distinctions, forms the final point of Spencer Brown's calculus of forms, which attempted to formally explain self-reference. Cf. Spencer Brown 1972: "In this way the calculus itself can be realized as a direct recollection" (p. 104). When a system observes itself like an object (in Spencer Brown's terminology: when the operation of "re-entry" is performed), this automatically introduces a "degree of indeterminacy"; this follows from the fact that the subject of observation is at the same time the object and vice versa. If one restricts oneself to observing the oscillation from subject to object and vice versa, this indeterminacy can lead to a paradox (a function "re-entering its own inner space at any even depth" (p. 56): Only the "odd" cases of self-reference - when there is only one re-entry, for instance - led to paradoxes). However, if one introduces an additional level of reflection, that is, if one reflects self-reference itself (two "re-entries" - and thus an even number), the same indeterminacy can lead to a greater degree of stability. In this case, a kind of "memory" begins to play a role, able to recognize the same responses to the same stimulus. In this way, despite (or perhaps because of) the indeterminacy, the system can control each of its own construction steps, guaranteeing its own coherence. This is, as we shall see (§ 5. 4), a notion of control to which nothing ontological is attached anymore, or, in other words, a non-necessary (avoidable) inevitability. On the calculus of forms as a formalization of self-reference, see also Baecker 1993a (especially Luhmann 1993a); Esposito 1992.



ESPOSITO, Elena, 2002. Soziales Vergessen: Formen und Medien des Gedächtnisses der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft, 1557. ISBN 978-3-518-29157-3, p. 12.

see also Baecker 1993a (especially Luhmann 1993a); Esposito 1992.